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Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach: Racing’s greatest ‘street party’

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – The Long Beach Grand Prix may have a new official name, but it remains one of the highlights on the calendar for any race fans.

What began as the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1975, continued as the United States Grand Prix West from 1976-1983, to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach from 1980-2018, will now be known as the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

“That happens to be the exact message we have been using in all of our advertising – ‘New Race Name. Same Fast Game,’” Jim Michaelian, President and CEO of the Gran Prix Association of Long Beach told NBC Sports on Monday. “That captures the essence of what you will experience when you come to the 2019 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.”

The week-long event brings Southern California’s glamour crowd to Long Beach to watch fast cars, soak up the sun, attend concerts and tour the exposition center. Only the Indianapolis 500 and the Grand Prix of Monaco would be seen as more prestigious races.

The weekend’s main attraction is the NTT IndyCar Series race (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app), while IMSA has its biggest street race of the season in Bubba Burger Sports Car Grand Prix of Long Beach (Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app).

But it’s more than just racing.

“Both days contain a significant number of what I call ‘non-hardcore racing fans,’” Michaelian said. “They are coming out, enjoying the atmosphere, participating in a lot of the activities here whether it is in the Lifestyle Expo, or the Kids Zone or the go-kart tracks or attending the concerts or Friday and Saturday night or Drifting on those two nights.

“The attraction for our guests all three days is to come out and enjoy themselves and take in some of the racing. Robby Gordon’s SST Trucks are always popular, and Drifting is always packed in the evening.

“And who doesn’t want to see Sports Cars in action like IMSA has, not only in DPI but also in the GTLM. Those are really aspirational type cars with Ford GT, Porsche, Corvette and BMW. Those are cars people would love to own and love to drive and they get to see them in action here.

“It’s the same mentality as far as approach that our customers and guests take when they attend here.”

In addition to a new sponsor, IMSA will help celebrate its 50thYear with an historic GTO race with 32 of the old GTO cars from 1990 and 1991. There will also be a display of GTP cars in the Prominade area of the Long Beach Convention Center. There are six events scheduled including NTT IndyCar, IMSA WeatherTech Series, the Pirelli GT4 America Series, Robby Gordon’s SST Trucks, Formula Drift and the IMSA Historic GTO Race as all part of the schedule.

Michaelian has been part of this event since its inception in 1975 when the event was created by England’s Chris Pook, who was running a travel agency in Long Beach at the time and hoped to turn the city into a destination.

“That first year was a real scramble,” Michaelian recalled. “We didn’t get approval from the State of California Corporation Commissioner to spend the funds we had raised until July. We had that race on September 28, 1975 so we were really hustling to put that event on. You can’t compare what we do now to what we did then.”

It ended up being a great event full of legendary racing names. As time went on and the promoter became more efficient at conducting the race, they were able to branch out with non-racing options to help attract more fans to the circuit.

The old Toyota Celebrity Race was a very popular addition that was held for 40 years with entertainment stars competing in a race around the circuit. When the Long Beach Convention Center was completed, that became a central zone for the non-racing portion of the event.

“As time has gone on, we’ve looked to add things,” Michaelian said. “We have created a Food Truck line on the backside. We have the Patron Club next to the IndyCar Paddock. We have been able to maintain and attract more of the non-track hardcore fans to give them reason to attend.

“We have 21 restaurants inside of our circuit. You can go to any number or restaurants. How many other restaurants have that? None, absolutely none.”

This year’s concert lineup includes Mexican Rock group El Tri for the third time. Saturday’s headliner is Cold War Kids with Moontower, an indie-electronic musical group as the opening act.

The real star of the show, however, is the racing on the track.

The race course is tight and difficult and has featured eight different configurations since that first race in 1975. When it comes to the NTT IndyCar Series, Long Beach is the biggest street race on the schedule. Only the legendary Indianapolis 500 is a bigger race on the 17-race schedule.

That is why any driver that wins at Long Beach feels the history and significance that comes with that victory.

“For sure, more so from the legacy of the track and not the size of the race or the people there,” last year’s winner, Alexander Rossi, told NBC Sports.com. “It’s how that city has hosted a race of some sort, whether it be Formula One or IndyCar or both for such a long period of time has made it such a historical and significant race. That’s the cool thing. It’s another race where my name is going to get to be among some pretty amazing racing drivers is pretty special.

“Outside of the Indianapolis 500, Long Beach is one of the ones you want to win. I have to agree with that.”

Among the unique aspects of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is the event continues to thrive and has helped transform the city of Long Beach into a destination area. There has been tremendous commercial development near the street course since it first staged the Grand Prix back in 1975.

Times were far different then and despite changes in political culture, the event is able to continue as one of the major sporting events of the season in Southern California.

It’s auto racing’s version of the Rose Bowl, the New Year’s Classic college football game played in nearby Pasadena, California.

“It is something that would never happen in 2019 if it didn’t have a special place in the city’s heart and legacy that went along with it.,” Rossi said. “I think we are very fortunate to continue to race there and should appreciate every year and opportunity that we have to go there and compete and have a show for what is an awesome fan base.”

With its luxurious hotels across the street from the race course, and one major hotel actually inside the race course, the drivers and teams enjoy the amenities and convenience at Long Beach.

“It’s awesome,” Rossi said. “If I have an 8:15 a.m. meeting, I set my alarm for 7:55 a.m. It makes our lives pretty easy, it’s great and convenient. The general vibe and atmosphere that goes along with that race is great. Along that same strip are all the restaurants and night life and people there and the music. The weather is always sunny and 75 in Southern California. It’s an amazing weekend and something we look forward to every year.

“The best thing about it is the convenience to be so close to good food and good people being so close to the race track.”

Winning the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is big to an IndyCar driver, and it’s just as important for the drivers in IMSA.

“Long Beach has always been a unique event for us,” IMSA GTLM Corvette Racing driver Tommy Milner told NBC Sports.com. “I can remember the first time I went there in 2007, the atmosphere there was different than any other event I had ever experienced. You have casual fans that attend the race and people that may not follow Sports Car racing like a diehard racing fans. It’s fun to talk to people from all different walks of life.

“Maybe it’s the first time they see our race and we explain what we do or to see young kids and their eyes light up when they see these cars for the first time run on the city streets.

“It’s unique and something we don’t experience any place out.

“The history of Long Beach, it’s LA. All of it together – the crowd, the atmosphere, the history and the great races we have – makes it a lot of fun. The streets after the race are alive with fans. It’s a fun event to go to and even better to win. It’s definitely a highlight of the season.”

2018 ACURA GRAND PRIX OF LONG BEACH SCHEDULE

Schedule (All Times Pacific Daylight Time)

Gates open at 7 a.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Some of the highlights of each day include:

Friday:

  • 10 a.m. Friday: IndyCar practice;
  • 11:40 a.m. Friday: Historic IMSA GTO practice;
  • 12:20 p.m. Friday: Stadium Super Trucks practice;
  • 2 p.m. Friday: IndyCar practice;
  • 3 p.m. Friday: Historic IMSA GTO qualifying;
  • 3:30 p.m. Friday: Pirelli GT4 America practice and IndyCar autograph session;
  • 4:45 p.m. Friday: BUBBA burger SportsCar qualifying;
  • 6:45 p.m. Friday: Super Drift Challenge practice and the Fiesta Friday concert with El Tri;
  • 7:30 p.m. Friday: Motegi Racing Super Drift Challenge.

Saturday:

  • 9 a.m. Saturday: IndyCar practice;
  • 9:30 a.m. Saturday: IMSA Weather Tech SportsCar autograph session;
  • 10 a.m. Saturday: Pirelli GT4 America practice;
  • 10:45 a.m. Saturday: Pirelli GT4 America qualifying;
  • 12:10 p.m. Saturday: IndyCar qualifying and Firestone Fast 6;
  • 1:30 p.m. Saturday: BUBBA burger SportsCar pre-race;
  • 2:06 p.m. Saturday: BUBBA burger SportsCar Grand Prix;
  • 4:15 p.m. Saturday: Stadium Super Trucks Race No.1;
  • 5 p.m. Saturday: Historic IMSA GTO Race;
  • 6 p.m. Saturday: Motegi Racing Super Drift Challenge and Rock-N-Roar concert with Moontower opening for Cold War Kids.

Sunday:

  • 9 a.m. Sunday: NTT IndyCar Series warm-up;
  • 9:35 a.m. Sunday: Pirelli GT4 America pre-race;
  • 9:53 a.m. Sunday: “Drivers Start Your Engines”;
  • 10 a.m. Sunday: Pirelli GT4 America race;
  • 11:50 a.m. Sunday: Mothers Exotic Car Parade;
  • 12:15 p.m. Sunday: NTT IndyCar Series pre-race;
  • 12:30 p.m. Sunday: Indy Cars to grid;
  • 1:23 p.m. Sunday: “Drivers Start Your Engines”;
  • 1:42 p.m. Sunday: Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (Race no. 4 of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series);
  • 4:05 p.m. Sunday: Stadium SUPER Trucks Race No. 2.

Report: Spencer Pigot out at Ed Carpenter Racing

Joe Skibinski / IndyCar
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Spencer Pigot will not return to Ed Carpenter Racing in 2020, according to a story Thursday by RACER.com.

The 26-year-old Floridian, who won the 2015 Indy Lights championship, is expected to be replaced in the No. 21 Chevrolet by 2019 Indy Lights runner-up Rinus VeeKay.

“I’m appreciative of the opportunity ECR gave me,” Pigot told RACER.com. “I understand the reasons they had to go in a different direction, and wish them all the best.”

In 56 NTT IndyCar Series starts, Pigot has 15 top 10 finishes, with a best finish of second at Iowa in 2018. He finished 14th in the 2019 point standings.

VeeKay, who tested in an Indy car twice for ECR in 2019, has six wins in 18 Indy Lights starts, including a weekend sweep of the final two rounds of the season at Laguna Seca in September.

A representative from ECR told NBC Sports Thursday that the team currently could not comment on any driver rumors as the team currently does not have any drivers under contract for the 2020 season, although it is presumed that owner/driver Carpenter will return to the No. 20 entry for the oval rounds.

NBC Sports will provide updates on the story once more information becomes available.